Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 18 December 2011
2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16; Psalm 89:2-5, 27, 29; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
God’s will and God’s way in the world is often not as we expect it to be. When King David expressed his desire to build a temple for God, the prophet Nathan gave him the go-ahead without even consulting God, so sure was he that God would approve. After all, building temples was what pious kings did, and a great God like Yahweh surely needed a fittingly impressive temple. But Nathan had to come back to David to tell him that he got it wrong. God’s reply to David stresses God’s agency: it was God who called David and who has been with him, it is God who is at work in the history of God’s people. God can’t be fixed and contained by symbols of status and power. God’s agency is also expressed in God’s promise to David: “You won’t build a house for me, but I will build a house for you, a dynasty that will last forever.”
This gift, the Davidic Covenant, itself became a way of trying to contain God. Because God had promised a perpetual dynasty to David, and because the Davidic king upon his coronation was declared to be God’s son, the descendents of David could claim divine right to rule. Even when the king chose to ignore God’s will and God’s way, he could hold God to the promise to protect the dynasty. What was supposed to be a beautiful symbol of God’s faithfulness and commitment to God’s people through their leader often became a cause for complacency on the part of the powerful, for assuming that God was on their side whether or not they were on God’s, and that God was bound by oath to keep things going.
The part of Psalm 89 that is read today celebrates this promise to David. But the tone of the psalm changes in the second part, because it seems that God has reneged on his promise: “But now you have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed ….. How long, O Lord, will you hide yourself forever?” There were several times in the history of God’s people when the Davidic dynasty looked close to falling, but it survived. But then in 586 B.C. the Babylonians deposed the Davidic king, destroyed the temple build by Solomon, David’s son, and carried the people off into exile. Even when they returned from exile half a century later, the Davidic monarchy was not restored. What had happened to God’s promise? The Davidic covenant gave birth to messianic expectations. Surely God would not break the covenant forever. And so many people were looking and hoping for the Lord’s anointed, David’s son, to come and reclaim the throne, to free God’s people from foreign oppression and to rule them in justice and righteousness.
Mary knew what the angel was talking about when he spoke of the son of God coming and being given the throne of David and ruling forever – that was part of her own religious longing. What confused her was the manner in which God would do it. What role could she, a mere girl, possibly have in the fulfilment of this great promise? Once again, God is doing the unexpected. God isn’t at work in the halls of power, but in the life and in the body of an unknown young woman. The king to come won’t be the kind of king that most people would recognise either – no palace, no army, no wealth. But, as in David’s time, God doesn’t need a temple to be built for God; God will choose where to dwell. And it isn’t where anyone was looking.
During advent we prepare to come close to and to enter the mystery of Christmas, a mystery that wasn’t only back then, but which is also now. In Paul’s words, the mystery has been revealed. But it is still a mystery. Are we, like Mary, open to receive it? Are we watching expectantly so that we can hear and respond to the unique and unexpected ways in which we are invited to carry Christ into the world?